Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: At the White House earlier this week the latest chapter in the so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom began. British Prime Minister David Cameron, two months in office, had his first formal meeting with President Barack Obama.
It was Winston Churchill who first spoke of the "special relationship" his government had with FDR after World War II. It is a phrase used far more often in British and European politics than here in the United States, but the two English speaking nations and their leaders had a full agenda of common problems.
Prime Minister Cameron arrived on a regularly scheduled British commercial airline flight declaring that he wanted to focus on the global economic recovery and winding down U.K. involvement in Afghanistan. But at the White House press conference most of the questions were about BP and its role in negotiating the release of a Libyan terrorist — the so-called Lockerbie Bomber — from a Scottish jail last year. Meanwhile, European Union members were alert for clues that Cameron, previously a Euro-skeptic, would move closer to his new, special friend.
Keith, I am going to start with you and ask you to give us some impressions of this White House visit. I know that you're based at the White House and you also attended the final press conference we alluded to.
Keith Koffler, editor, Whitehousedossier.com, Washington: I think the key thing was that this was about atmosphere more than anything else. I think you're very correct to point out the long relationship from Churchill and Roosevelt, to Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan, you know right through Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Tony Blair and then Bush and Tony Blair. It has just been something that Americans are used to. Americans are reviled in large parts of the world and we always feel like we can count on the British. I always think that the president is trying to re-establish this sense that we do have a special relationship with Great Britain. In fact he used the term "special relationship" several times during the press conference. Also, I think Obama has been criticized here in the United States for cozying up more to, whether justifiably or not, America's enemies than its friends. He has reached out to Ahmadinejad in Iran of course and sort of had a brief hug with Chavez in Venezuela, and there is a sense in the United States that Obama is not treating our allies as well as he should. I think we also saw that a couple weeks ago when Netanyahu was here.
Scott: Let me shift just quickly to Leigh Phillips to give us the European perspective. How does the EU view Mr. Cameron? Is he a supporter of the EU or not?
Leigh Phillips, reporter, EU Observer, Brussels: They (EU members) were absolutely horrified when he was elected because both he and a number of his colleagues were seen as incredibly Euro-skeptic, possibly one of the most Euro-skeptic governments in a long time. But in the end Cameron very quickly was able to junk those perspectives thankfully by having the Liberal Democrats forging a coalition with him, which for him was a blessing in disguise. During the campaign he was forced to take a more skeptical line to satisfy the hard right of his party, but once in power he was very happy to have to junk that. Now here in Europe people are pleasantly surprised at how engaged he is. I can't remember which minister it was, but one minister turned out to a council of ministers meeting which was representatives of all the EU member states and the minister surprised everyone by chatting away in French and then in German. They were not at all used to that.
Scott: What do we see as some of the U.S. accomplishments from the D.C. meeting? Was this just a visit for the historians to tick off or was anything accomplished? Keith, could you tell us from the Washington perspective?
Koffler: I think that the relationship is so important. I mean, after all, we're fighting a war together in Afghanistan, and there will be discussions next year. The British are looking to draw down troops in 2011, and, of course, the president has talked about drawing down troops as well; although it is unclear how serious it is and how much that will occur. Really, I think more than any other leader, the personal relationship between the president and the prime minister of Great Britain is important to the United States. It appears that they have developed at least a way to cooperate and a way to talk down the line.
The Lockerbie bombing is still a very emotional issue in the United States. The families who lost people there are often very vocal, and I think the United States is really interested, especially in Congress, they're interested in finding out what BP's role was in lobbying for this person's release. Cameron seemed to resist that. One of the things he said in the press conference was "I don't need an investigation to know that there were mistakes there," and that is really contrary to the United States's position. So Britain may feel some pressure to take a look at that.
More than anything this meeting was about building relationships, building a sense of cooperation. I think a lot of people in the United States view Great Britain as the last sort of Western democracy that is willing to fight and willing to help the United States in these kinds of things.
Scott: Gonzalo Vino, what has been the reaction among the British public and inside the British political world?
Gonzalo Vino, House of Commons reporter, Bloomberg News, London: Well, again, I think I agree with Keith. This is about both leaders looking each other in the eye and knowing they can work together in the same way that Gordon Brown and George Bush met. You need that personal bond there because there is so much at stake and so much is intertwined.
Scott: I think in talking about this special relationship we have to recognize that there are 200 other nations out there in the world, to give numbers more or less, that are also looking at it. Leigh Phillips, what about the European continent? What have some of the early assessments been?
Phillips: I think that the U.S. is looking more to have just a regular relationship with the U.K. rather than a special relationship. Increasingly, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and so on I don't think we can really talk about small and large European countries now. Every European country is a small European country in the global context, and so for the U.S. to single out one small member state on the edge of Europe doesn't make as much sense as it used to. I think the U.S. probably would have made a similar shift under Bush if it weren't actually for the Sept. 11 attacks. That fiction needed to be kept alive a little bit longer. The global tectonic geopolitical shifts that were happening long before are now beginning to make themselves apparent once again.
Scott: Let me ask Stephen Fidler to comment on that.
Stephen Fidler, Brussels bureau chief, The Wall Street Journal: I broadly agree but I think we can exaggerate the movement away from Europe and towards China or Brazil. It is a gradual change that may be influenced by a variety of things such as individual relationships. I think Obama himself is someone who is probably the first U.S. president whose inclination isn't to look towards Europe. His inclination is to look towards other parts of the world.
The U.K. is becoming more like other European powers. Up until now it has been the only country that has really been, with the partial exception of France, the only major country willing to kind of throw its troops into harm's way in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. But under budgetary pressures it is going to be cutting defense budgets significantly over the next five or six years, and the question going forward is whether the U.K. will become more like the rest of Europe and lower its military spending.
Scott: Just a few final words. As personified by the heads of government in the U.S. and the U.K., the story of the "special relationship" has had its highs and lows. Churchill and Roosevelt were actually distant relatives. As some of our participants pointed out there were close relationships developed between JFK and Harold Macmillan. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would be Facebook buddies today. This spring, HBO broadcast a movie focusing on the friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and later George Bush. The future for Barack and David? Stay tuned.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall, and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.